Connecting with H’Mong Villagers in Sapa, Vietnam

With its lush green foliage, cascading rice terraces, and beautiful rivers set against the backdrop of mist-shrouded mountains, Sapa is a nature lover’s paradise. Once a French hill station, this picturesque North Vietnam town nestled in the Tonkinese Alps provides a welcome respite from Hanoi’s oppressive heat and hectic pace of life. Sapa is also a wonderful place to encounter the many hill tribe villagers who, dressed in their colorful traditional costumes, flock into the town to sell their handcrafted goods.

My travel companions and I were hanging around the night market when two women from the Black H’Mong tribe struck up a conversation with us. “Hello, where are you from?” they asked, the standard opening line of every street peddler in Vietnam. By the fifth time you get that question, you’ve figured out they don’t really care where you’re from. As soon as you reply, you’ll get harassed into buying stuff you don’t want or lured into parting with your money in some way or another. Yet, somehow this time, the conversation flowed in a fun and lighthearted way, without any sort of awkwardness, and we soon realized that Nu and Lily, two cheerful H’mong women with infectious smiles, weren’t trying to sell us anything at all.

Bridge in the Sapa valley area

Much to our surprise, they spoke English quite fluently, which was impressive considering that they had learned the language by just interacting with tourists. Nu and Lily sparkled with so much life and genuineness that it was hard not to fall under their charm. When somewhere in the conversation it came up that they often took tourists on guided treks to their village, we jumped at the opportunity and asked them if we could come along with them the following day! And so the next day, without having planned to do so, we found ourselves off on a guided trek with two of the most delightful hill tribe women in Sapa.

A group of women from the Red Dzao hill tribe

The scenic hike took us through stunning valleys across the Muong Hoa river to their village of Lao Chai, 7 kilometers from Sapa. We stopped at a rice terrace along the way to watch farmers plant rice. Water buffalos grazed nearby, paying no notice to the small dog following them around and occasionally barking at them. We were amused by a water buffalo nonchalantly resting on the grass while animated children took turns climbing on its back.

Muong Hoa river on the way to the H'mong village of Lao Chai

Nu invited us into her home where we met her family of seven children ranging from two to seventeen years old. It was deeply humbling to see their very simple way of life. Every single item in their home was made by their own hands and had some practical use. Having access to neither television nor other modern forms of entertainment, the children just played together or helped take care of the family’s animals—a dog, chickens and chicks, ducks and ducklings, and a little black pig. I was intrigued by one of her teenage sons, a shy and self-effacing boy who spent his time caring after several young birds. He never uttered a single word, but appeared to have a sort of silent rapport with the birds he handled—I called him the bird whisperer.

The young bird whisperer

Nu and Lily cooked us a simple but delicious meal. As we ate, Nu related to us the story of a Dutch man who had become friends with the family and arranged to have electricity brought into their home. Not long ago, the man had returned to visit them and taken pictures of the entire family. He then had the photographs printed as 5×7 prints which he gave to the family as a gift. Nu proudly showed us the beautiful pictures, which numbered at least twenty. We admired how this man, through such kind and thoughtful acts, had made such a positive difference in this family’s life. The gratitude that Nu felt towards that man was very palpable in the way she talked about him.

H'mong fabric dyed with indigo plant

At the end of lunch, we bought a few handicrafts from Nu and Lily. Before we left on our journey back to Sapa, they insisted on offering us purses and bracelets as gifts to express their gratitude towards us. I was really touched. Though they didn’t have very much, they gave as if they had a lot to give. I felt blessed to have met them. People like Nu and Lily are like beacons of light in the world, opening their hearts and sharing their warmth and kindness with strangers from all over the globe.

Nu and Lily's smiles oozing with genuineness

For more pictures, check out the Vietnam set on Flickr.com.

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2 Responses to “Connecting with H’Mong Villagers in Sapa, Vietnam”

  1. Paula July 17, 2011 at 7:59 am #

    Sounds like you’ve had an interesting and rewarding trip. Hope that you’re giving your feet a rest!

    • Cinthia July 17, 2011 at 10:52 am #

      Hi Paula! How wonderful to hear from you. Yes, the trip has been extremely enriching–a life-changing experience, for sure. How is Burma? To think that I’m not too far from the Burmese border! I hope you are enjoying your stay there.